Sunday, February 14, 2016

The New York Times Travel Section's Bad Judgement: Swimming among Refugees

Last Friday, the New York Times travel section came out with an article, which caught my attention. The article, "In Turkey, Adventure Travel Takes the Plunge," introduces to its reader the Turkish coastal region of Kas, just miles away from the Greek Island of Meis (Kastellorizo). Here, Americans and Europeans will find nothing short of paradise. 

What the article fails to highlight is that Syrian refugees are dying in these waters with increasing frequency. Since January 1, over 400 people have lost their lives making the journey from the Turkish coast to the Greek Islands, while 72,000 have reached Greece, traumatized by their sea journey and facing new hardships. True, most of the refugees are crossing much farther north from Kas, in the Aegean waters, but just earlier this month a group of Syrian refugees were returned to Turkey after trying to reach the island of Meis. 

The NYT article does briefly mention the refugee issue. However, the information provided appears to have been written last summer and not updated. Further, it strangely juxtaposes the refugee vis-à-vis the tourist, who is unable to reach Greece:  

Our family agreed that it was our best holiday ever...

Not everything was perfect, of course. I would have preferred actually stepping onto the isle of Meis to start the Greece-to-Turkey swim instead of hopping from the boat a long way offshore. (That shore-to-shore crossing is undertaken by locals in an annual race in June — and at night by refugees passing through Turkey to seek asylum in Greece. Ali Gumrukcu, the captain of the daily ferry between Kas and Meis, said that of the roughly 400 refugees crossing the water into Greece each month, most of them from Syria, 10 to 20 brave the swim, waiting for nights with no moonlight so they would be undetected).

However, these waters are safe. According to the NYT:

The locations usually feature clear, relatively calm water free of watercraft and sharks. The tour guides are certified beach lifeguards with first aid training and powerboat licenses. They say the biggest hazards can be Jet Skis, jelly fish, sudden storms and swimmer fatigue.

Seeing endless tragic videos of refugees in trouble at sea, I could not help compare their plight with that of the European and American tourists:

*A tourist spends about $1,000, which gets them hotel, boat and daytime meals but not flights, dinners or tips. The pricier tours are based on boats. Swimmers are often in their 30s to 50s, though ages range from 16 to the 80s.

*A Refugee pays about a $1000 to a smuggler to cross from Turkey to Greece. They too are of all ages. However, if they are caught by the Turkish Coast Guard (or soon to be NATO ships), they are forcefully returned, with smugglers making away with their money. 

*Tourists are required to get travel insurance. 

*Refugees have no life insurance.

*Tourists are promised to have the luxury of having certified life vests

*Refugees often buy uncertified life vests which are dangerous. They are not able to hold body weight, which lead to drowning.  

*Tourists are guaranteed an "open water swimming experience"

*Refugees often receive the "open water swimming" experience with even the strong ones not strong enough to survive.  

Turkish Coast Guard rescues a lone survivor, have a watch and learn more about the refugee issue. 

Of course, my point is not to say that Turkey should not be a tourist destination. That would be ridiculous. I too have been to Kas and can tell you the article is not at all exaggerating in terms of its beauty. It is simply breathtaking. Further, tourism continues to the Greek Islands despite the influx of refugees. There is no difference here. Further, Turkey is home to over 2.5 million refugees and should be commended on taking in so many people. This is certainly not a reason not to go there.  

However, the NYT travel section editor should have shown sensitivity to the issue, realizing that now is not the time to pitch a story about a summer swim get-a-way in a place where so many people are drowning on a daily basis. Or, if it did not want to shelve the article, it could have provided up-to-date information on the plight of the refugees, weaving it into the story. For example, one local Turkish site provides information on how tourists can help refugees while visiting Kas, or the neighboring Kalkan.  

Perhaps, the travel editor should have picked up its own paper to understand that the timing was not right. The NYT regularly reports about the refugee crisis. In fact, just a day after the discussed article came out, its Istanbul Correspondent, Ceylan Yeginsu, issued an important in-depth story focusing on the rampant death of refugees at sea, entitled: Constant Tide of Migrants at Sea, and at Turkish Cemetery, which I highly recommend to read.


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